An in-depth look at Oath of the Gatewatch for Standard by Matt Gregory
The full Oath of the Gatewatch spoiler is now available and with a new PPTQ season just over the horizon it’s time to look at how the new set might impact the most-played format. With no Standard Pro Tour for this release the shape of the metagame will be defined much less quickly than normal. This is because there will be fewer premier-level events to create the yardsticks by which new brews may be judged, and as such there will most likely be a reasonably long period where the metagame is much more open and fluid than usual.
If you want to get ahead of the game, now is the time to start testing new cards and concepts – if you can show up to the first few PPTQs with a tuned deck you may well have a significant advantage over your many opponents who are still speculatively trying out new cards or simply running out-of-date decks.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF COLOURLESS MANA
The defining feature of Standard since the release of Battle for Zendikar has been its consistent four-colour manabases, allowing decks to get maximum usage out of the many powerful multicolour cards from Khans of Tarkir. Decks like Dark Jeskai and Four-Colour Rally simply operate on such a high power level that they are highly unlikely to be knocked out of the format, and because of the high power of the cards available to almost any deck, new additions need to have an extremely high baseline power to be worthy of consideration. Simply put, for a new card to make it’s way in to Abzan Aggro it needs to have a very high baseline, and few cards from Oath of the Gatewatch are likely to be able to make that sort of leap.
The baseline assumption for most of spoiler season was, therefore, that the metagame wouldn’t shift dramatically as it was unlikely that many new cards would become available that create new archetypes which can rival the three- and four-colour decks already doing the rounds. Some of the cards revealed in the last week of spoiler season, however, knocked that assumption out of the water.
All of these cards – and a few others besides – have a very high power level but also require that you build your deck very differently to accommodate them. Thought-Knot Seer has the downside of failing the Siege Rhino Test but the ability – a sort of hybrid Vendilion Clique/Tidehollow Sculler – is very powerful indeed and at 4/4 for 4 the baseline stats are far from shabby.
Reality Smasher does pass the Rhino Test (actually a genuinely important watermark for any mid- to late-game creature right now), albeit with less efficiency, and almost always ensures a two-for-one. It’s also an incredible draw in a topdeck war – unless your opponent has a card in hand to pitch for their removal spell they simply can’t kill it and a 5/5 haste trample ends the game very quickly.
Aside from a couple of high-power new creatures, Spatial Contortion stands among the most efficient early-game removal spells in Standard. It kills every important card at one and two mana in the format and most of the three-drops at instant speed and even works as a pump spell on your larger creatures so it remains relevant in the late game. Cheap, efficient removal with added flexibility is basically a lock to see play – but in this case there is something of a puzzle to be solved in terms of what decks can actually reliably cast it.
Eldrazi Displacer is the most exciting of the bunch for Standard in my opinion. A 3/3 for 3 represents an average but perfectly solid body, and the ability – whilst not cheap to activate – is incredibly powerful. The sheer utility of repeated blinking is incredible – this clears blockers, saves your guys from removal, kills Hangarback Walkers, flips non-creatures manifested off Mastery of the Unseen, and reuses any number of great enters-the-battlefield triggers. Flickering Wingmate Roc, Wasteland Strangler or Pia and Kiran Nalaar every turn sounds just about unbeatable under most circumstances. It also essentially forces an opponent’s first removal spell to be spent on this rather than the creature that’s actually killing them – it’s a Mother of Runes on steroids.
So now we know the pay-off cards are there – and these are all conceivably strong enough to justify breaking from the fetch/battleland manabases for – we need to work out how we’re casting them. For a card like Eldrazi Displacer, which requires colourless mana to activate but can still be cast without it, the requirements aren’t all that strict. A regular Abzan deck could quite easily replace some of its existing lands with Llanowar Wastes and Caves of Koilos, ensuring it can reliably cast Displacer whilst knowing that activating it will happen more often than not. There’s clearly a cost to casting Anafenza, the Foremost with painlands, but the pay-off of flickering Siege Rhinos seems likely to be worth it.
What about casting cards that require colourless mana like Spatial Contortion? Here we have to theorise a little – I have not had the time to thoroughly test the new manabases yet so be aware that I’m hypothesising based on experience here – but the traditional rule-of-thumb for the number of sources of any given colour you need to routinely cast a spell early on is thirteen. That’s not a hard and fast rule but I’d use it as the rough minimum when building potential manabases.
For monocolour decks running colourless sources, that’s pretty straight-forward. You can more or less split Wastes and the appropriate basic land and you’ll come out somewhere near a reasonable manabase. Moving into two-colour decks that want to cast these spells becomes a different matter though.
Say we want to build a deck using Eldrazi Displacer, Wingmate Roc and Pia and Kiran Nalaar, which can also cast Spatial Contortion (I certainly do). Starting with four Battlefield Forge gives us four colourless mana sources, so we need nine more. Assuming we use Wastes for that, we now have twelve remaining slots for lands. We can run four copies of Needle Spires as dual lands – eight left – but after that an even split of Plains and Mountain gives us twelve of each colour – really not enough to reliably be casting Pia and Kiran Nalaar without help!
Even using fetches and battlelands doesn’t manage to produce a better result for casting double casting-cost coloured spells (remember that two Wastes will allow your Canopy Vista to come in to play untapped by the way). So we need to get creative to make a “two-colour colourless” deck work. Take this:
That’s 16 each of red and white and 13 dedicated colourless sources – on paper, pretty good! But whilst you can absolutely treat off-colour painlands as dual lands in these decks, remember that all those life costs will add up, and you will assuredly lose matches as a direct result of that cost. The bottom line is that the pay-off will need to be big to justify going down this road, as your opponents playing Abzan and Jeskai won’t be burdening themselves with the same disadvantage.
Of course, in reality I wouldn’t ever play a Wastes in a manabase like that – why would I when I can play this beauty?
Sea Gate Wreckage is a Wastes with a free upside attached. How often will you activate that ability and draw a card? Who cares?! If you want to play a land that produces solely colourless mana, you need a damned good reason to play Wastes over this. Ruin In Their Wake might be a reason, but short of a card like that you’re more or less passing over free value. I love Sea Gate Wreckage and have a feeling it’s going to creep into a lot of my decks over the next eighteen months. Whenever there’s no downside, you have no excuse not to play it – unless you’d rather play Shrine of the Forsaken Gods! Both these cards do everything a Wastes does and occasionally more, and there are no Blood Moons or Burning Earths in the format to punish you for it.
One more thing I’d say about colourless manabases in Standard is that I have my doubts that there enough good colourless cards along the curve to justify a mono-colourless deck. I’m looking through the spoiler as I type this and I just don’t see the early game plays that make me want to go down that road. A couple of good two- and three-drops and we could be talking, but they’re conspicuous primarily by their absence. Much like the mythical Allies deck, truly colourless decks probably won’t get off the kitchen table.
NEW PLANESWALKERS AND THE OATH CYCLE
Another archetype that Wizards seem to want to encourage us towards playing in the coming months is “Superfriends” – a deck built around playing tons of different planeswalkers. To try and push such a deck towards being a reality, we have four new Oath cards – legendary enchantments that have a solid ability that triggers when they enter the battlefield and give you a lasting benefit as long as you’re casting planeswalkers:
Oath of Nissa is the card that’s generating the most hype and it’s not too hard to see why – one mana selective cantrips have always been consructed staples, and the requirement that you play lands, creatures and planeswalkers isn’t exactly a harsh one in green. While I firmly expect this to see play in certain archetypes – Abzan Control for instance would surely be interested – I think it’s worth noting that the label of “The Green Ponder” is overselling the card somewhat. It isn’t free to play in any deck and there is a deckbuilding cost to running this – you need to be playing a deck that is bare minimum 75% hits to make this a playable card. It also doesn’t help you to stack the top of your library in the way that the best cantrips do so a much fairer comparison is Sleight of Hand, which is a pretty big step down from Ponder – and Sleight of Hand also never misses.
It’s worth noting that in a deck interested in running a bunch of planeswalkers, the static ability is actually pretty good – even with the manabases we have now trying to curve Nissa, Voice of Zendikar into Gideon, Ally of Zendikar into Ob Nixilis, Reignited is easier said than done. The best static ability if you’re interested in an all-planeswalker deck though probably belongs to Oath of Jace. Drawing three and discarding two is a little bit below the power level of Standard in general, and this is also not a format that allows much time to durdle (although with a return to Innistrad on the horizon, it’s very possible that graveyard shenanigans make that effect much better), but scrying potentially mutiple times every upkeep is a very strong effect and a great reward for playing a bunch of planeswalkers. Inevitability and consistency are so hard to come by in Standard that any effect which helps you get there has the potential to see play.
Oath of Gideon is basically one mana too expensive to see play based solely on throwing some tokens on to the field, so you’ll probably only be playing this if you’re making good use of the static ability. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar himself is probably the best ‘walker to have come in with extra loyalty counters but being able to use consecutive minuses on cards like Ob Nixilis, Reignited and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is also very powerful, especially in a deck where you may well be regularly drawing mutliple copies of the same planeswalker – being able to “burn” one of them up and get the second into play seems very useful in a deck like that.
Finally, Oath of Chandra has come in for a bit of stick, but 3 damage to a creature for 2 mana really isn’t that bad of a rate, even if it doesn’t exactly set the world on fire. I don’t especially see this being a great card in a Superfriends deck though simply because I’m not sure that a deck which would naturally tend towards a controlling game plan really wants to be Shocking its opponent every turn. The early defence could easily make it worthwhile though, and if you are churning out planeswalkers then doing an impression of a one-sided Sulfuric Vortex may well push this past other early-game removal spells.
The main barrier I see to an Oath-fuelled Superfriends deck right now is simply that there aren’t that many planeswalkers in Standard that really work in that sort of shell, or that work together. The most powerful planeswalkers in the format – Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar – don’t really work that well in a mono-planeswalker shell, and the only planeswalker below four mana that fits into what this sort of deck likely wants to be doing is Nissa, Vastwood Seer. Planeswalkers do have a lot of resiliency in a format where the only immediate ways to remove them from the field see minimal play (like Ruinous Path and Quarantine Field) so if that puzzle can be solved then the incentive is certainly there. For now I’ve not been able to construct a list which feels consistent and balanced enough to make me want to go down this road.
Speaking of planeswalkers, let’s take a look at the new ones we’re getting…
Two new planeswalkers which fall very much at opposite ends of the spectrum. Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is a relatively low-power planeswalker but at three mana she requires only a low investment and naturally protects herself. Her second ability is also genuinely powerful, especially if it can be repeated, so decks interested in producing tokens will no doubt try and find a home for her. Some form of Abzan Tokens deck doesn’t seem at all out of the question to me, and Nissa would likely be a part of that if her mana cost could be borne – the current manabases in the format make 1CC spells much trickier to cast than you might think (just ask Drana, Liberator of Malakir why she sees so little play).
Chandra, Flamecaller on the other hand is expensive and naturally plays well in a deck with few creatures. I think many people have underestimated her partly based on how weak previous expensive Chandras have been, and partly because her abilities almost work in the opposite direction to those of previous ‘walkers.
What I mean by that is that traditionally planeswalkers come down and use one of their first two abilities for a few turns before building up to using their last one. The new Chandra does the opposite – her first ability is the finisher here, designed to end a game once she’s cleared the board. Her -X ability will usually be the first used – presumably in a deck designed to make it one-sided – and then she can start either ending the game quickly or filling up your hand to help you gain board control. Speaking of which, her 0 ability is not as random as it may seem – by the late game it will often be easy to keep bad cards (such as extraneous lands) in hand to turn into better cards later, and with an empty hand it’s simply a “draw one”. The downside of Chandra is that she doesn’t protect herself very well against creatures with high toughness – and as long as we live in Rhino World, she may be kept out of the format. Bear her in mind after rotation though.
GOING BIG IS GOING TO BE BIG
This card just seems unreasonable to me. Red-Green Eldrazi Ramp never really took off largely because it got run over so easily by Atarka Red, and now it has a main-deckable card that gets around that flaw. The fact that it can come back in the late game and take out your opponent’s entire board for free is just absurd. It isn’t even dead against a deck like Esper Dragons, where you can take out an unflipped Jace in the early game and then get an untapped Dragonlord Ojutai later on. A sweeper that is basically always one-sided and always effective is a very powerful card indeed.
It does mean that the Ramp decks will have to adjust away from playing Rattleclaw Mystic but Jaddi Offshoot and Hangarback Walker are both early drops which can buy time to make up for the slower starts and which you don’t really mind being on the board when you cast Kozilek’s Return. Still, even if this card does make the Ramp deck a little scarier, at least they didn’t get any insanely powerful new Eldrazi to play with…
…Yeah, right. Both of these cards join Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon as ludicrously expensive cards with an absurd impact on the game. A resolved Kozilek, the Great Distortion can very easily lock an opponent out of any further interaction whilst it goes to town. World Breaker simply keeps coming back, turn after turn, whittling down an opponent’s resources whilst being effectively impervious to removal or counterspells. The fact that the deck can run a mix of incredible top-end threats even means that Infinite Oblieration isn’t as good against the deck as it used to be.
The too-long-didn’t-read nub of the matter is that Red-Green Eldrazi gained a ton of new toys to play with and is probably the existing archetype that has gained the most from Oath of the Gatewatch. It’s hard to see this deck failing to become a top-tier staple of the format, and that is a possibility which could put the midrange decks which have defined Standard in the last few years in a very awkward spot indeed.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE ELDRAZI
So if Red-Green Eldrazi is the deck that gains the most, which deck loses the most from the new set? Step forward, Atarka Red…
Thanks to the emergence of Flaying Tendrils and Kozilek’s Return, the deck which weren’t previously able to play Radiant Flames now have a premium sideboard card for aggro, and that’s pretty bad news if you’re keen on casting Dragon Fodders. Much like Drown in Sorrow before it, this will see a bunch of sideboard play and could conceivably even work its way into maindecks from time to time. Thanks to the exile clause, it has applications against both Rally and Hangarback Walker and even makes Monastery Mentor that much worse. The existence of this one single card could easily have a profound effect on the metagame.
The two-drop slot has always been a weak spot for Abzan, and the new set gives us two new applicants for the vacancy left by Fleecemane Lion. Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim is an interesting one. 2/3 for 2 is a curious set of stats right now because whilst that’s generally no more than average, being big enough to dodge Wild Slash as well as small enough to dodge Abzan Charm makes Ayli much harder to get off the board than you might think – and having deathtouch means that she’ll always be able to take something with her in combat. Heir of the Wilds sees play for much that same reason, and trading the occasional point of damage for a more resilient body might be worthwile. Her other abilities are also far from blank in a deck which has multiple sources of lifegain like Siege Rhino and Sorin, Solemn Visitor – a card she works spectacularly well with.
Ultimately, being legendary and difficult to fit in the same deck as Warden of the First Tree, I don’t think she’ll make the cut in Abzan, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her crop up in different Black-White shells – a deck which wants to play both Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Secure the Wastes, for instance, can definitely find a use for Ayli.
The other new 2/3 for 2, Sylvan Advocate, I can promise you, is not Tarmogoyf. I’ve seen that comparison an unhealthy number of times and this is not even in the same league. It’s a 2/3 with no further text until a point in the game where there are much bigger and more impactful things you can be doing, and a 4/5 isn’t necessarily very big game once you get that far. The ability to make Shambling Vents twice the size is very real however, so I’m not quite ruling out Sylvan Advocate just yet, but I’m sceptical that she can make the grade.
Of course these will all see play – Lumbering Falls sees less than it should due to the colours it’s in but that doesn’t mean that manlands aren’t more or less always excellent. There are very few decks that can play these that won’t take up that opportunity. Needle Spires and Wandering Fumarole can both close a game out very quickly and whilst Hissing Quagmire is too vulnerable to Wild Slash and Fiery Impulse to be guaranteed to trade every time you want it to, a land with deathtouch has more than enough uses to make the maindeck of just about any list that can animate it.
A couple of interesting cards that very much bear mention here – Grasp of Darkness saw play in Extended in its last run out and is probably the single most efficient early-game removal spell now available in Standard. Killing everything up to three mana that sees play is huge – but the casting cost is extremely restictive. Remember my comments about casting 1CC cards like Drana and the new Nissa earlier? Well, double that for Grasp. Whether its power level is sufficient to completely change how mana bases are built remains to be seen, but in two-colour decks that can realistically cast this on turn two, it’s hugely powerful. Black-White Control is a very plausible home, and even if the awkward cost means it can’t force its way into Standard just yet, it will almost certainly see plenty of play in the future.
Warping Wail is a somewhat baffling card. It does three very narrow things, and doesn’t do any of them remarkably well, but having access to three such disparate abilities on one cards means there is some chance of it being better than I think. Killing Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and countering Painful Truths are both abilities I won’t turn my nose up at, but a fair amount of the time this will rot in hand without really having anything to do. I don’t see it making waves in the current format but the card does enough things that I wouldn’t be shocked if we saw it in the future.
This is probably the best Man-o’-War ever printed, but it’s been some time since Man-o’-War was actually playabe. At three mana it doesn’t naturally fit into a tempo strategy (which the format lacks the tools to make happen right now anyway) but is a great target for Eldrazi Displacer so this could see play.
All odd midrange Eldrazis who have some chance of being picked up by the Rally the Ancestors decks. Matter Reshaper is very good when it hits and really quite bad when it misses, whilst the other two are more consistent in their abilities. Sifter of Skulls can’t be found with Collected Company, which is unfortunate, but Vile Redeemer is not only synergistic with Nantuko Husk but also a good end-of-turn play after a Languish.
I’m not sufficiently experienced with Four-Colour Rally to make any grand pronouncements about whether they have a home in that deck, but having more options can only make one of the best decks in the format stronger.
Flexibility is a fine thing but these cards aren’t quite as strong as they might look at first glance in my opinion. Take Bearer of Silence – you wouldn’t play a Welkin Tern in Standard and nor would you pay four mana for an edict effect. Stapling them together does not, I feel, justify playing either half of the card. It’s very much worth bearing in mind that these effects are cast triggers and therefore uncounterbale, so Bearer of Silence can, for instance, ensure that a Dragonlord Ojutai gets sacrificed whether your opponent has a counterspell or not. But if Esper Dragons or Eldrazi Ramp folded to a single edict effect, then they would never have become decks in the first place. Colour me unconvinced.
That’s all I’ve got time to go over today – there are plenty of other interesting cards I didn’t have space to go over and no doubt I’ve simply missed a great many potential hits in Standard. For a small set, Oath of the Gatewatch is remarkably deep, and there are many cards in the ballpark of Constructed playability, a number of which are very hard to evaluate. I don’t doubt that in a year’s time I’ll look back at this review and laugh at just how badly wrong I was about a few cards here, but for now I hope my opinions and insights help to push your own brewing and testing in the right direction.
I’ll also be back soon with an article looking at how Oath of the Gatewatch can affect Modern and what implications the banned and restricted list announcement may have, but in the meantime…
Community Question: In your opinion, what is the best Oath of the Gatewatch card for Standard?
Thanks for reading,
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